In the 35-year stretch from the death of Hank Williams in 1953 until the rise of Randy Travis and Garth Brooks in the late 1980s, country music produced two undeniable legends: George Jones, the quintessential country crooner, and Johnny Cash, the internationally acclaimed “Man in Black.” In 1998, five years before Cash’s death, the singer got together with friend and Hollywood producer James Keach to plan a film about Cash’s life based on his two autobiographies, Man in Black (1975) and Cash (1997). The resulting film, Walk the Line, received a sensational response at its first screening at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, and its subsequent nationwide release has generated consistently enthusiastic reviews and Oscar buzz about the performances of Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, the love of Cash’s life. Fortunately, the enthusiasms are justified. Despite its predictable biopic cliches, the film is engaging, energetic, and enjoyable.
Walk the Line chronicles the life of Cash from his youth in Dyess, Arkansas, where his family moved during the Depression to take part in the government’s collective farming program, to his famous Folsom prison concert in January 1968. It culminates a month later when Carter finally capitulates to Cash’s ten-year pursuit and his endless marriage proposals. Along the way, we see Cash’s early success at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records studio in Memphis at the age of 23; his bad-boy touring with the other Sun label stars including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison; his immediate friendship with Carter; his amphetamine addiction; the eventual implosion of his first marriage, his career, and his health; and his “going straight” with the no-nonsense support of Carter.
Phoenix and Witherspoon are especially compelling in their portrayals of Cash and Carter, and they actually sing—and sing well—the couple’s famous songs. Phoenix successfully captures many of the singer’s distinctive mannerisms, from his walk, to his hitched shoulder while performing, to his on-stage use of his guitar as a weapon-like prop. Phoenix is particularly adept at revealing the weakness of the man, especially Cash’s guilts, frustrations, and confusions.
As for Witherspoon, who grew up in Nashville, she creates an amazing portrait of Carter, a true country-music royal who grew up backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. She was the oldest daughter of Maybelle Carter of the legendary Carter Family, whose RCA recordings in 1927 (along with those of Jimmie Rodgers) initiated modern country music. Witherspoon’s Carter is a wise, funny, tough-minded, and sexually appealing down-home fire-cracker, who’s fully aware of her moral failings: two divorces and a brief adulterous fling with Cash while he was still married to his first wife.
Thus, Walk the Line is not really a biography of Cash, but rather a depiction of his ten-year pursuit of the woman he loved. Biographical films are often accused of not capturing the complexity of their subjects, and this fundamental problem is further complicated in musical biopics because so much film time is naturally dedicated to the music. Cash was fully aware of these problems when the film was in its early stages, and Keach has explained that Cash “wanted a film that wasn’t just sex and drugs and rock-‘n’-roll.” These were certainly good intentions, but ironically, they seemed to have inhibited the film too much. Walk the Line, although generally well-made and pleasurable, could have been a great film (in the tradition of classic biopics like Franklin Schaffner’s Patton or Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette) if it had been truer to its subject.
Cash was tremendously charismatic, both on-stage and off. Kris Kristofferson once described him as “larger than life, as powerful and unpredictable as lightning.” He further explained that Carter was “as bright and shining as [Cash] was dark and dangerous.” But in focusing Walk the Line on Cash’s relationship with Carter, the director, James Mangold (Cop Land), and his co-screenwriter, Gill Dennis, have not given us enough of the man who, even before he cut a record, had written the famous lyrics of “Folsom Prison Blues”: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Johnny Cash was a Christian and a humanitarian, but he was also, even in his early years, a powerful, intimidating, and precarious presence.
Directly related to this problem is the film’s reluctance to show more of Cash’s personal inferno. This was a man who admitted that the devil took “over every once in a while,” claiming, “I know. In my time I fought him, I fought back, I clawed, I kicked him.” Cash’s career, his touring, even his music created endless Dantean temptations that kept him from walking “the line.” It’s true that the film shows Cash being arrested in El Paso in 1965, when he came back from Mexico with 475 Equanils and 668 Dexedrines in his suitcase, and it also shows the destruction of his marriage to Vivian Liberto, a Roman Catholic. But Cash, who never actually served hard time, was, admittedly, a very dangerous man. He crashed his cars, he sank his boat, he set off a 508-acre forest fire, and he tried to commit suicide in the Nickajack Cave west of Chattanooga in 1967. Films, of course, can’t show everything, and Hollywood tends to sanitize its subjects. But Cash never mitigated the sins of his past, and he wanted this film to tell the truth about his self-destruction and his rehabilitation, which he always saw in light of redemption.
Which leads to the religious element. It may seem unfair to criticize a film that portrays Christianity in such a favorable light, but as Keach has explained, Cash wanted Walk the Line to be about “his journey as a man, and his love with June, and the fact that God was at the core of his story.” The film shows Carter leading Cash to church, and she warns Cash, after she and her parents have helped to dry him out: “God has given you a second chance to make things right,” but the film never pursues either character’s essential Christianity. In real life, when Carter finally agreed to marry Cash, she told him that she was going “to put God first in her life, her husband second, and herself last.” And she did. As for Cash, everything that he ever did since he was a child he comprehended in Christian terms. He claims that the seminal moment in his life was that very day—November 5, 1967—when Carter brought him to the First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and the pastor, Rev. Courtney Wilson, preached about the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus as the “living water.” Before leaving the church that day, Cash had rededicated his life to Jesus.
Both of Carter’s parents played crucial roles in Cash’s rehabilitation, and her father became his spiritual confidant. A single scene in the movie with Cash discussing this vital subject with either June, Maybelle, or Eck Carter could have added great depth to the film and properly portrayed the truth of Cash’s inner struggle. Instead, the film focuses on the impact of two other family-related problems: the death of his beloved older brother Jack when Cash was only twelve, and the lifelong coldness of Cash’s father, who clearly favored his oldest son and resented the fact that the devil “took the wrong son.” Needless to say, both of these incidents were crucial motivating factors in Cash’s life, but he learned to live with both difficulties due to two more important motivators: his religious faith and the love of June Carter.
Nevertheless, Walk the Line is an enjoyable and vibrant film with great music and exceptional performances. It’s far superior to last year’s Ray, which, apart from Jamie Foxx’s good performance, was overrated and rather movie-of-the-weekish. Walk the Line, regardless of its predictabilities, has numerous thematic virtues. It’s unusually honest about adultery, drugs, and the concept of sin. It also clearly respects Christianity and its promise of redemption. So maybe it’s unfair to wish that the film had somehow transcended itself and revealed more of the essence of the Man in Black, but that’s exactly what Johnny Cash would have wanted.